2019 is the International year of Indigenous languages, and this year’s NAIDOC theme was “Voice. Treaty. Truth’. Language for First Nations people is deeply entwinned with the NAIDOC theme. Language is knowledge, culture, spirit and power. Attempts to kill off the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in this country demonstrate the very power that they hold, and the push to preserve them acts as a sovereign act to speak in our truth as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
If we examine the moments in history where a language has been stifled in an attempt to kill off a culture or a population, we see that this removal enables a sameness to occur, killing off any difference. You kill the voices from culture, you remove the truth in our stories.
I owe my ancestors an apology. I owe my culture and its people a sincere unpacking of the things I have been compliant to for all of my life. The only way to come close to changing this is to educate myself through such things as learning my language.
History determined that my family would lose connection to their cultural country. Dislocation would create a trauma and a wave of strange disjointed tension would become normality for us. My country is Biripi, but I have never lived there. My mother’s family moved from there when she was six years old and attempting to reclaim memories seems so difficult for her in her senior years. The familial information is fading as my aunts and uncles age… yet another link to vital information that will be buried in their bones, never to resurface in this life.
I have had to become a detective of my own history, and through the slow gaining of knowledge, an unlearning of compliance and colonised thinking has begun. Reclaiming a language that has been systematically destroyed is a difficult process, full of a grief and loss that embodies whole communities if it is permitted to. Not only that, but it is a perfect snapshot of what has been taken from individual’s families; lifetimes of disconnection and pain at losing a belonging that nothing can really replace. But this reclaiming is also a strengthening process, a healing process that gives one power, knowing and love.
I’m proud of my Aboriginality, but memories in my growing years are of being placed in uncomfortable spaces with regards to my culture. I remember a fortnightly gathering of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through the education department, a forced act of apparent belonging which seemed in hindsight more a ‘rounding up’ of Blackfullas to drill into them the idea we should be thankful and not step out of line in class. There was no mention of specific language in those meetings, and I knew nothing of my own or anyone else’s. I began to disengage, where once I was interested in learning all I could, towards an internalised anger in my teen years.
I became activated, I wanted to know the truth about the world around me. The one thing I still wasn’t overtly political about was my Aboriginality because, quite frankly, I didn’t know enough. I was unaware of who could be guiding me, what communities there were and Elders and those that could teach me. You need to remember, in the 80s there was very little in education curriculum regarding Black Australia, so in school we were still being told we were ‘discovered’ rather than invaded. Terra Nullius was so much more convenient to them and kept our compliance in check.
Once I began learning more, I found myself wanting to be part of the change that could occur. I took wrong steps. I allowed myself to be placed in positions where I epitomised that of the ‘compliant native’ or ‘the one we saved’, and I didn’t understand that I was a currency back then, being used by structures that were further instilling an erasing of my culture to something else.
Education, both formerly and through conversations with Aboriginal peers and Elders, taught me the knowledge I needed to continue the learning. Learning Gathang is one way of taking back something that was taken. It will take a lifetime to learn what still remains of this language, and without a community of people around me speaking the in the same tongue, I will struggle. This NAIDOC week I celebrated that I can build on the learning I need to continue unlearning that compliance. Mob are able to use their voices and speak the truth of our experiences. The current era gives us digital space to learn from others, and the but it is in the knowledge of Elders words and wisdom that we must use to guide us.
Biripi, writer, PhD on deadly Aboriginal women & leadership.
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